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Kirsten Johnson is both the creator and subject of Cameraperson, though you won’t catch a glimpse of her until the film’s very final moments, and even then it’s just for a second or two. That’s because, despite Johnson being a prolific cinematographer with credits on striking, politically charged documentaries like Citizenfour, Darfur Now, and The Invisible War, Cameraperson isn’t a traditional examination of issues or personality, but rather a visual collage of words and images she’s captured on camera. Johnson smartly prefaces the film by calling it a “memoir,” and that’s the best way to approach the film’s peripatetic style. “Memory,” after all, is the only consistent recurring theme.
From Bosnia to Missouri to Nigeria and back again, the footage in Cameraperson was culled from her work and travels around the world. This isn’t the footage that comprised the final form of these films, but the snippets she captured in between interviews or the moments that cluttered the cutting room floor. Each clip – some last minutes, some just moments; some feature interviews, some just stillness – is prefaced with a title card that identifies its location. Some settings and personalities are revisited, while others just pop in for a memorable turn of phrase or a sweeping tableau or a haunting confession. In this way, the film truly evokes one’s memories, which tend to unfold in fits and spurts, with notable images arising and quickly dissolving again. Couple this with some moving snippets of Johnson’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, as well as footage of Johnson’s growing children, and it becomes clear just how personal of a film this is. This is a woman’s life we’re watching.
But despite Cameraperson being a memoir, it’s not a wholly solitary experience. Most memoirs place us inside the head of its subject, but here we’re limited to the subject’s visual POV. This is a good thing, because, by letting the footage speak for itself, Johnson allows her subjects to impact the audience in their own way. People, after all, will stare into a camera in ways they’d never be able to look into a person’s eyes, so the experience for the viewer is ultimately different from that of a chronicler. It’s rare that a memoir can be this universal.
It also doesn’t hurt that Johnson has such a strong eye for capturing nature’s beauty and the spontaneity of humanity. Sometimes we’ll even hear her chatting with colleagues about the best way to frame a shot or discussions about what her crew is allowed or not allowed to film. Some of the film’s most resonant shots are wordless: a lightning strike in a Missouri field, for instance, or the image of morning sun skating off the dirty tiles of a Bosnian torture site. Yet there’s also plenty of humor, such as a humorously harrowing sequence where Johnson audibly winces while watching a baby try and fail to yank a razor-sharp ax from a stump.
Still, Cameraperson can sometimes feel meandering, something not particularly unsurprising for a film of this nature. Some scenes linger, and the film itself is a touch too long to sustain the sense of discovery it initially engenders. Also, Johnson’s particularly interested in moments of kindness and humanity, which is affecting and inspiring, but occasionally lacking in tension. But the film’s optimism is also refreshing, and works to distinguish it from the similarly cobbled together but infinitely more punishing 2006 film TV Junkie.
Now that anyone with a smartphone carries an HD camera, POV memoirs like these are likely to become much more commonplace. But Johnson, being a primary voice behind some of this century’s most important documentaries, is a particularly qualified candidate to chronicle life in this way, and her greatest feat, one I can’t imagine anyone else achieving, is her ability to tell the story of her life without ever once talking about herself.